Trans-Inclusivity in Spec Fic: Insufficient!

I’ve been spending lots of time reading the awesome Natalie Reed just lately. Her blog is full of coolness and good writing and awesome resources for gender egalitarians, freethinkers, and nerds alike, but as my bloggy thing is about books that have dragons and spaceships, I mostly feel qualified to comment only on the latter subject. Being a lefty radical and all (because apparently “hey, maybe people should receive equal treatment and opportunity regardless of identity and we should all just enjoy pudding together” is a radical statement), I do try and talk about representation of everyone in both the authorship and the fictional universes of the nerd-book world.

And yet I find I haven’t talked about trans characters anywhere here. And while I certainly accept my own culpability in being unconsciously cissexist like a jerk, there’s, uh, kind of a paucity of such characters out there. I’ve reviewed a lot of progressive, inclusive authors here and I’ve covered LGB back and forth a few times, but nothing in the Trans or even genderqueer bit of the spectrum.

Damn.

Of course, gender variance is relatively rare, but there are a lot of books and a lot of stories out there. Folklore is full of characters who move between binary assignments or just hang out in the middle or somewhere else entirely. Coyote has a detachable penis! Which isn’t really all that relevant, since male manifestations of Coyote usually take it off just to bother someone with it, but it’s pretty badass, isn’t it? I’d like one.

I can think of lots of trans characters in anime and manga, which could be a great analysis and reflects rather poorly on the culture I live in (though the depiction is usually still a bit problematic). I’ve never reviewed any of this stuff because there are far more qualified individuals and I don’t think I could analyze in any useful detail. And I usually find light novels to be very bland in translation. From my early teens, Noriko of Fushigi Yuugi. stands out in my memory. Noriko was mostly a badass, confident lady, capable of passing without but confident enough once she got outed by an evil something or other (despite the fact that the revelation was couched in terms of “really a man,” so yuck). Late in the series there was a pretty pointless revelation that she had decided to be female after her little sister died and “as a man” she… blah. It would have made sense if Noriko was actually bigender or something, but I don’t give the manga-ka that much credit. She was this truely terrible writer and world-builder who accidentally wrote a great supporting cast only to kill them off for the mild dramatic benefit of her horrible, horrible main characters.

But as to spec-fic novels of the sort I usually review? Well, I can think of two examples, one awesome despite many issues, one interesting but odd.

As I just review Christopher Moore’s new book, another old favorite of mine is on my mind. Island of the Sequined Love Nun features Kimi, a confident, awesome trans woman of color, unashamed sex worker, survivor of human trafficking, violence, and abuse, and probably the only halfway competent individual in the main cast. The narration insists on using male pronouns for Kimi, which is annoying and stupid, and the male lead’s initial response to her is, “Oh, hey, a sexy lady to whom I’m attracted! …Oh, ew, that’s a dude in a dress.” They’re respectful friends later on, but the story doesn’t try not to other her. Feels more like unthinking cissexism than the hateful kind, but that’s still not okay. It’s also noteworthy that Kimi speaks oddly broken English. Since I think English isn’t her first language, that’s fine, but very few of the other characters with English as second language do it, and the result is more like “me love you long time” than any permutations of dialect I’ve heard. And Kimi (spoiler time!) doesn’t survive the book, but admittedly most of the characters don’t, and Kimi gets to appear as a perfectly contented ghost/deity later on. It… kind of makes sense in context. Is Kimi disposable because she’s trans or because there’s lots of dying and it just happens? I dunno. It’s debatable.

However, Kimi has a talking, fashion-forward fruit bat for her sidekick, which makes her the coolest ever.

The other trans character I can think of (and the pool here is “books I’ve read and can think of,” so this isn’t necessarily diagnostic) is Tamir in Lynn Flewelling’s creepy fantasy trilogy, the Tamir Trilogy. I love these books, and the only criticism that immediately occurs is that there wasn’t exactly a need to invoke magic to write a story about a person whose gender is other than what was assigned them as a baby. But if using fantasy to deal with real issues is against the rules, say goodbye to Drow. It’s an interesting story whatever the case.

Tamir is, far more literally than is usually the case, a girl in a boy’s body. Her dead brother’s body, actually. Yeah, it’s a terrifying story, actually, but that’s beside the point. In any case, scary magic results in a little girl growing up with the body of a little boy. Tamir, as Tobin, is fiercely remonstrated for liking girly things, so as to keep up the charade and raise a respectable little lordling. She performs masculinity fiercely throughout childhood and young adulthood, dealing as best she can with her lack of interest in girls as sexual partners, being in love with her male best friend, her ease in bonding with girls as friends, her need to see women as equal despite vicious demands that she act otherwise, and so on. Not all of this necessarily has anything to do with gender expression or identity, but to Tamir it certainly seems to set her apart. There’s a lot of gender-fuckery in these books, with LGB characters as well and repeated questions about what’s essential to gender and what’s constructed, what’s enforced on Tamir from outside and what’s all her. She finds her female body initially more alien than she did her male body, once magic happens again. Maybe that’s a side effect of being magic-trans instead of the regular kind?

So it’s not perfect, but it’s interesting, and Flewelling seems to me to handle Tamir well.

And, of course, not every trans person is out and it’s not necessarily going to be relevant to the plot, and lots of fictional characters could be trans that we don’t know about or need to. Maybe Spock is trans. That’d be cool. Maybe The Incomparable Dejah Thoris. Maybe Jesus.

But we could use some more. Really. (And, um, I brought up Jesus and detachable penis in the same post, for which I feel there should be some kind of award.)

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Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed

It says a lot about my beloved genres of choice that I find the cover of this book so fascinating. It’s a picture of the characters in the book, drawn in a dramatic array but doing things that make perfect sense for them to be doing, looking like the text describes them, and rendered in a slightly stylized, dynamic, fun way that evokes good comic books. The female lead is poised, but in a fluid, combative way rather than a somehow-point-both-tits-and-ass-at-the-viewer way. Their features have not been quietly rendered generically Caucasian. No stiffly drawn generic characters pulled from a box o’ illustrations. No bland, obtuse mess of geometric bits graphic-designed to death. Not even a vague mass of colors and shapes or an epic landscape that may or may not be accurate to the story, but evokes a fancy matte painting far more than the meat of the tale. There’s neither cost-cutting nor “no, seriously, this is a real book about important things and I am a sensible author” pretension. This is a book that is unashamed of being a fun, clever adventure story. (Of course, frequently the author has very little control over that, so I guess this is just a nod to the publishers? Anyways, I like it.)

Saladin Ahmed’s first novel draws from Arabian folklore ancient beyond telling and modern tropes both embraced and skewered. It’s the story of a city imperiled by forces supernatural and mundane. While wicked sorcerers and their pet ghuls poke at the fabric of reality, the entrenched ruling class harasses the poor. The central story is an adventure with swords and all sorts of magic, but the political situation (and here I use political as a shorthand for a very well-developed socioeconomic sense of the highly stratified city, international intrigue only hinted at, a complex but apparently universal religious system with many splinter groups of varying fanaticism, and so on) is at times more interesting. There are three major factions containing main characters and infinitely more around and within them, and no one has anyone else’s best interests entirely at heart.

That said, as twisty and complex as the world is, the plot is surprisingly simple. I kept waiting for the major epiphanies that I was sure were coming. the characters and the world were so unique, so surely the story would go spinning off somewhere interesting! …Well, I won’t say it was dull. Far from that. Everyone was fighting everyone else all the time in really spiffy ways and the stakes were high. The titular throne was in peril from several directions and the main party of characters had to concern themselves with the awakening of unspeakable and ancient evils, while alongside them the idealistic underworld lord with a heart of gold threatened civil war and the aristocrats… aristocrated. I can’t say anything in the plotline is all that special, really, as much fun as it was. Even the characters’ conflict all came from either within themselves or from outside the main group. There was some lawful good on chaotic good bickering and a lot of moral conundrums, but everyone is pretty much who they appear to be.*

The characters make up a wonderful, prickly cast. I won’t go so far as to call them affectionate grotesques, that oh-so-useful term I kind of invented myself, but while they’re all fundamentally good, they go about it in some very odd ways. There’s Doctor Adoullah, cranky, crude, and the last defense of the world against supernatural evil. There’s his assistant Raseed, a teenage sword prodigy with a stick up his ass. Their dear friends Litaz and Dawoud, a husband and wife team from far off lands and an alchemist and mage respectively, get shafted on both the cover and the book jacket blurb. I suspect mainly due to space constraints. Anyway, the persnickety old married couple with world-shaking magic add a pleasant vibe to the book. I particularly enjoy books with middle aged and old characters, especially ones that aren’t pure stock character. It’s nice to get some perspective from people who might not be hot enough to want to empathize with. Zamia is a very good try at writing a tough teenage girl. She usually works, she has a motivation for her growly personality, and she softens under some circumstances to a more palatable sort. She also turns into a lion, which helps. Sure, her weakness is a hot guy, but she actually appreciates him for being hot in a way that acknowledges the female gaze and respects him for his skills rather than just butting heads with him and then inexplicably falling for him, which is a nice change of pace. I’m not gonna complain too much.

The roleplayer in me likes to see such a balanced party. Healer, couple specialized spellcasters, dps, and… and a fucking lion. Every party needs a lion. The team aspect of the book plays a lot, and everybody has a role to play under pretty much all circumstances. The world does seem a bit like a really good game setting with good NPCs and an excellently executed plot. The book frequently pauses for local color, and while it doesn’t enhance the story much, it makes you feel part of the world. The sights and smells of the various quarters of Dhamsawaat, the coolest city ever if you don’t mind the crime, monsters, and lack of justice. The various magic traditions mostly follow from the strangely universal religion, but like a lot of fantasy, the deity actually does stuff, so belief is pretty clearly justified. My favorite bit of worldbuilding was the fractured state of this belief system, the way various factions of devotees and even heretics went about interpreting this not-quite-omnipotent God. Two of the main characters are holy men and Zamia’s lion-shifting is apparently a god-given thing and the baddies work for the fallen angel, so he had fun with it and all the viewpoints keep the religious thing from getting tedious.

You get all viewpoints all the time. It’s one of those books that jumps from character to character in a sort of roving third-person-limited, at one point reiterating dialogue twice on one page so as to get two people’s reactions thoroughly. Each character has a very distinct voice and a different way of viewing things, so while there’s no swoon-inducing prose poetry or deeply clever wordplay, it all stays interesting enough to engage, even when there are two pages on the subject of tea. Raseed is my favorite viewpoint character, since I like internally-conflicted hardasses, apparently, almost as much as I like making fun of teenagers. I perhaps over-empathize with the cranky-ass doctor.

So the book is well written with good characters. The world is rich and interesting. The plot is fun, if not too special, and I’m looking forward to the next book. Yes, we got another series! That I jumped into right after the first book came out! I hate waiting.

And I have something to add, because I love tangents more than any other trigonometrical subject. This book is billed in conjunction with the Arabian Knights in its typically breathless and over-written blurb. I even thought about making the comparison myself, and then I noticed there was no reason to do so. I’ve found the reference in several other reviews and mentions, too. And I guess I can see how it’s a useful shorthand, meaning “this story uses Middle Eastern rather than Western European folkloric roots.” But no one feels the need to introduce Tolkien with “well, this is sure Icelandic!” The fact seems to be that drawing from a not-entirely-Western tradition is so staggering that we have to fall back on the most basic, stereotypical reference we can find, dripping with Disneyfication and what’s left of colonial exoticism. For the record, Throne of the Crescent Moon has nothing in common with the Arabian Nights cycle that Earthsea doesn’t have in common with The Brothers Grimm. I’m equally excited to have a story that builds its mythos on a different foundation and annoyed that this is, in itself, a big fucking deal.

And I don’t really know which impulse is better. But I definitely think you should read this book, and the other ones when they come out.

*Disclaimer: Who they appear to be according to my genre savvy. Perhaps another reader will be shocked!

Review and Retrospective: The Raven Ring, by Patricia C. Wrede

Many of my readers will probably agree with the premise that Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles are among the best YA books in the history of ever. The wild, gleeful skewering of tropes, the preponderance of dragons (automatically and immediately improving any book), the best use of rebellious princess syndrome in recent memory, Killer the levitating blue winged donkey who used to be a rabbit… I don’t know if I could critique these books even now, but when I was an even littler Ginger Waif, a wide-eyed and peculiar nerdling with an impossibly fast and demanding metabolism when it came to devouring books, Dealing With, Searching for, Calling on, and Talking to Dragons were pretty much the alpha and omega of what was awesome.

So after I’d read them ten or twelve times, I went looking for more by Wrede and, at the time, found it all in the intimidating grown-up section of the library and enjoyed what little I found there. This was before Google and I had to make due with what I had. Later in life, when used book stores, Sci-Fi club libraries, and the internet were available I did all I could to track down the early works of Wrede, as well as following her more recent stuff. Somehow, the only one that eluded me was The Raven Ring. Until now. Bwahahaha!

The Raven Ring is a novel of Lyra, the world Wrede created and mostly wrote in in her early career. The edition I got (on my schmancy ereader that seems to have laid claim to me entirely) rather interestingly includes the first chapter of the first book by the author as edited for a rerelease. I do enjoy these little glimpses into the writer’s thought processes, and it’s pleasantly humanizing to see one of the voices that defined my childhood, well, editing. Books seem to not actually burst fully-formed from the firmament, and it’s always nice to be reminded that a combination of work and talent rather than magic is responsible for great fiction.

While Lyra contains all kinds of strange creatures, The Raven Ring focuses on humans, and while there are ancient temples full of magical traps and sweeping landscapes and exotic locales of all sorts, almost all of the action of the book happens in a city, resulting in a sort of medieval urban fantasy of a kind I quite like (see, um, half the titles previously reviewed). The story follows Eleret, a warrior maiden who strikes out to the distant city to claim her soldier mother’s possessions following her suspicious death. She’s pulled into a bizarre intrigue surrounding a mysterious artifact and acquires some sidekicks. The Big Bads are alluded to. Apparently nothing bad ever happens in Lyra without the ultimate evil having a hand in it somewhere. It’s a little like Sunnydale that way.

SoThe Raven Ring is a good example of my lifelong idol’s work for adults and as a mature writer. I’m willing to say right here that it doesn’t work for me on the visceral level that theEnchanted Forest Chronicles did. Some of that is no doubt pure nostalgia at work, of course. I’m not aiming to make this a comparative review but rather to see how the dewy eyes of third-grade love work when the veneer of obsession is gone.

The writing in The Raven Ring is solid but unremarkable. There’s no stunning narrative voice to point to, though the dialogue is well constructed. The pacing of this rather short book feels occasionally pinched. There’s a lot of setup and a hurried payoff in the larger story arc, but individual plot threads are better. As I compared Swordspoint to a highly political LARP with erratically intertwining stories that never quite paid off, The Raven Ring strikes me as an investigative tabletop run by a small, intimate group that knows each other well, plays pretty neatly, and prefers the journey to the destination. The final showdown with the nefarious villain piles into an infodump of details the players didn’t catch on the way there and is finished in one climactic session of game.

To continue my nerdy, nerdy analogy (and I’m allowed because you’re already reading a spec-fic blog), the characters play together well. Eleret could be a generic grumpy action girl in an inferior author’s hands, but she has motivations and moods rooted in herself and the bizarre situation she finds herself in. She feels like a real person. Her sidekicks verge a little bit on the caricature in both cases, the dashing aristocratic rake and the snarky rogue. Wrede pulls them off and I admire a writer who takes old archetypes and breathes new life into them, but Daner is a little too Prince Charming wannabe and Karvonen a little too gleefully clever. they’re goofy. But it’s Eleret’s story. The main villain never has much of a character, but for good reasons; I’d say not having a real identity is a big part of the spookiness. He has some good minions, though. The supporting cast is just kind of there, I must admit. There are some soldiers and magicians and noble ladies and they amuse, but most of them just deliver plot points or conflict on cue.

The noble ladies actually point to a slight tonal issue in a lot of Wrede’s books, especially the older ones. As a rule, the positive characters are the ones who have swords or magic and go around doing useful things as far as the plot is concerned, and as long as they’re active and busy, the villains are generally at least interesting, if not sympathetic. People who prefer to ignore the tides of plot tend to get derided, which is fair enough, I suppose. Usually there’s a world or at least a large landmass and attendant population to save. Wrede likes high stakes. But while people who are mildly detrimental or wholly neutral as a whole just get made to look ridiculous, when these characters are female, they’re not just putting stupid stuff ahead of what’s important. They’re putting stupid girl stuff ahead of what’s important. Feminine heroines are alright, but if you’re a pesky sister or a courtesan with not much to do with furthering the story, you’re a stupid, dumb, girly girl who likes girl things.

As it happens, the Ginger Waif understands this issue. When one happens to be a girl, one is expressly and implicitly told over and over that these things over here are girl things for girls to like. If one happens not to be disposed to like the majority of those things (like, say, the color pink, ruffles, shopping, and so on), one becomes resentful, and that resentment can spill over onto the perfectly neutral totems of cultural femininity. And that in turn can spill over to the people who like those things. It’s clear to you that shoes and sequins are stupid and no one likes them (ah, self-centeredness), so people who seem to take honest joy in fashion and romance novels must be either disingenuous or stupid. I still have to remind myself every so often that there’s nothing wrong with happening to enjoy being what you’re expected to be.

I’ve heard Wrede speak at length on the subject of her female characters, but she dwelt on the heroines. Apparently, her stock answer to “How do you write such strong women?” is “Do you know any women?” Or something close to that. The talk was years ago. I don’t object to writing so that characters who are ambivalent to the plot are jerks, but I do object to using femininity as shorthand for shallowness.

Wow, that was… a tangent.

The story can’t be called generic, but it is a tad bit predictable as it unrolls. I can’t claim it’s the old “brave but naive warrior woman comes to the big city where various forces seem to coalesce around her and she makes friends with some entertaining weirdos and magic happens” yarn, but the mystery is far more for the characters than the genre-savvy reader. Karvonen injects a little chaos that the story badly needs, but even he can’t offset the predictability. That said, it’s a good story. It has all the important bits. Ennobling and base emotions at war, sword fights, intrigue. All the necessary elements, and it’s fun to read.

It’s hard to fairly assess the worldbuilding of The Raven Ring. I know a lot about Lyra and I suppose most readers of the book will as well, what with all that came before. That said, the Lyra books are all stand-alone stories, united only by universe, so the sense of place should be strong by itself. The city at the heart of the plot is fairly well explored, but it seems to consist entirely of inns, alleyways, maybe a market, and various buildings with NPCs waiting to dispense plot. It doesn’t have a lot of unique personality. Eleret’s homeland holds some interest, but so little of the action takes place there that all I know is that it’s mountainous and everyone there is warlike. The scary evil from beyond time is a little underwritten here (it makes a very oblique appearance, after all), so there wasn’t anything really scary going on. Though you might have a hard time finding a fantasy regular who’s easily scared by a bunch of ancient evil things that are evil and also evil rar. The magic at work is the most unique part. There’s a peculiar spin on tarot cards, some creepy and effective magical skullduggery, and some genre-standard magic-school sorcery, and it all works together well. The idea of superstition in a world with active magic is an interesting one, the same as mixing magic and gods, another idea that always draws me in.

So, altogether, The Raven Ring is a perfectly okay book with some real strong points. It’s nothing like as awesome as The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, though. What’s the moral of the story? Well, could be that the books that define us are stuck on a pedestal and there’s nothing to do about it. There’s the observation that some authors are more suited to one voice than another. Or maybe it’s just that there weren’t any dragons and it’s just a fatal flaw.

Problematic

I think I need to place a moratorium on myself when it comes to using the word “problematic.” It’s so damn useful, but really, it’s gotta stop.* I can get by without this linguistic crutch! It’s simply a tic. Now, the Ginger Waif will go and do something soothing. Let’s see. Given the recent loss of the groundbreaking author and my mood to enjoy some dragons, I think I’ll delve into Pern. Relive high school a little. Carry on a tradition, too, since I inherited all the older books from my dad’s extensive sci-fi collection.

Dragons, flying on dragons, time travel, hey, a bard. And… and sexuality is a smell and rape is love and no woman who isn’t demure and childish/sexy (…what?) ever makes good and… Now, now, Ginger Waif, it was a different time. Why, considering the 60’s, she was perfectly progressive! By certain lax standards, anyway. She did improve later in life, and there are fun stories buried in the… Endless waves of impossibly messed-up gender-based tripe. I love my old-school pulp, but it’s so–

Maybe try another comfort read. Let’s go for some early Tanya Huff! An author who was ahead of her time; so much so that you don’t actually need to qualify her early books with the dates! And sure there’s a little squick, but I’ve already been over that in previous reviews and I think it probably does come down to character perspective, in the end. So I’ll just enjoy some nice, familiar Vicky Nelson. And wondering how on earth a writer ever came to be so hostile to journalism. Does the media ever do anything other than harass victims, cause panics, and interfere in active investigations? Sure, the popular media can be kind of awful about airing whatever’s most sensational, but is there a sympathetic journalist anywhere in this universe? And on a similar note, do all the police officers and military personnel need to be deified? In all the thousands of pages given over to the Canadian constabulary and the space marines, I think there are, what, two bad cops? And they… actually, completely fail to get their comeuppance. They just disappear. Did the system work? Or are they still out there somewhere in imaginary-90’s Toronto, planting evidence and brutalizing suspects? Is this actually an incredibly subtle commentary? Am I being hypercritical and assuming that just because a wrong isn’t addressed specifically, it’s tacitly approved? Maybe. Probably. But still, I find the slight authoritarian bent a little– Damn.

Do you really need to spend all that time on the rape, George R. R. Martin? Lesbianism doesn’t work that way, Christopher Moore. Dear entire genres of horror and comedy, agh! Terry Goodkind, I hate you and everything you love.

…No. I’m not giving up my word. There’ll never be anything worth reading that won’t contain some premise or idea that I can quibble with on some level. There’ll never be an author I agree with wholly. Hell, I can reread my own stuff going back a year or two and wonder what I was thinking. Some stories are too laden down with execrable ideas to enjoy, but even the best stories have their baggage, their questionable aspects, their betrayals of an author’s foibles. I’m sure my writing contains its own challenges and mistakes. And hell, while I consider my idea of right to be pretty well-considered, there are certainly other opinions out there. I never want to be blinded to new or even disturbing ideas in my fiction, and I seldom want to tar a whole story with the brush of WRONG. (Unless it’s that thing where Orson Scott Card made Hamlet’s dad a child predator because gay is caused by Satan. Fuck that book and fuck Card for writing it. And Ender’s Game isn’t even that good. Yeah, I said it.) I can’t think of a better word to address concerns appropriately without bogging down reflections of the literary merits. Problematic. It’s here to stay.

*Except when my food is problematic. That is an opinion I will always and forever voice. Or until someone figures out how to eat a gyro without a chest-high table, rolled-up sleeves, and a lot of luck.

The Bottleneck

Know what’s hard? Reviewing sequels. I usually aim to do a whole series at once, so as to address the major overarching themes and give a plot intro for the first bit of the first book, and that’s that. I did do that short story followup to the Smoke series, I guess, and that was pretty fun, but it was a good stand-alone story and that’s a universe that lends itself very well to episodic stories. You don’t really need to know what came before to enjoy specific instances of monster-defeating. However, I’ve been plowing through series just lately, and in the case of many, any description of the second book would spoil bits of the first, and so on. So that’s one reason there haven’t been any new reviews. The rest of the Inheritance Trilogy to take an example at random) is excellent but resists all the efforts I’ve made to discuss them without busting bits of the plot for number one. Sigh.

The other problem is author saturation. In this information age, following authors is so, so easy. I remember being an even smaller Ginger Waif and wandering up and down the shelves of the library, hoping occasionally that a new book by a good author would appear, occasionally driven by the internal flame to ask the librarians to tap into their resources to find out if Bruce Coville or Brian Jacques had put out anything new. Carefully typing titles into the brown-on-black screen of the generally distrusted computers that had replaced the card catalog. I still occasionally find books by childhood favorites that I never knew existed, thanks to the insufficiency of the local library system.

Now I have all my favorite authors on facebook and twitter and feeds of all their blogs. Amazon alerts me and friends I can reach at a moment’s notice anywhere in the world give me tips. I’m about to acquire an e-reader of some sort (yup, I surrender, come the after-Christmas sales, anyway) and then there’ll be nothing between me and instant gratification.

And that means whenever the long list of established authors I follow loyally brings out something new, I can pounce on it. And that means precious little time for the random thing I just found at the library.

It looks like a good thing, though. Maybe I’ll fit a day or two into my schedule for it.

Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N. K. Jemisin

This review gig is getting to me a little, I’m finding. When I don’t care for a book I elucidate exactly why to myself, and if I can’t I get frustrated. I’ll interrupt myself from time to time even with a good book, wondering what I’ll say about that, wondering whether there’s enough of an experience for me to write about, wondering, wondering, wondering. It’s not a bad thing to be a critical reader, certainly, but it can be distracting. And so I was delighted to find that I didn’t have the least attention to spare from The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

There’s a sort of feel to the old science fiction, back when it was all called science fiction regardless of whether it was pure swords and sorcery or all about aliens. (I think the categorical differentiation began to come about when icky girl writers got on the scene, but that’s another essay.)  It’s best in The Dying Earth and The Book of the New Sun, in the Ginger Waif’s humble opinion. The sprawling, sparkling, dirty cities, the civilizations great and terrible, the hovering threat from beyond the stars or beyond the heavens, all the horror and beauty a reader could ask for without the studied gritty reality you find in a lot of modern books that are trying too hard. The early excellencies of the old school. An elegant weapon for a more civilized age.

Yeah, as civilized as any world where old white dudes wrote all the stories.

But I can’t resist those incredible old universes, which is one reason I’m so very thrilled by The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Jemisin’s world has all the glories of the worlds that were and all the character depth and humanity of more modern spec-fic movements. There are frightening gods and shining temples and sinister priests and creeping perversions. There’s a protagonist with a history and a soul. Er, actually, that’s complicated, but… Let’s get on with the review, shall we?

Yeine is the rather young chief of her people, a small, matriarchal society considered not particularly civilized by the center of the world. This world has a very pronounced center, enforced by literal divinities. The Arameri are something between a nation and a family, the chosen wielders of gods as weapons, patrons specially chosen by the head god. (You will, as a fantasy reader of any stripe at all, recognize that the deities in question may be Other Than What They Seem.) The Arameri rule over everything by dint of having magical reusable nukes with personalities at their disposal, and Yeine is technically one of them. Her mother was the heir to the throne until she defected to marry a backwoods ruler. And as the story opens, Yeine is summoned to the city of Sky to face her grandfather.

Lot of background there just to get to page one. One of my favorite things about Yeine is that she’s a protagonist with a past. She’s got a touch of chosen one syndrome, but she was chosen for a very distinct, convoluted reason outside her control and she does well with the hand she’s dealt. She’s a defined person long before she walks into the story.

Anyway, Sky is full of backstabbing and horror and Yeine is thrown right into the center of it. Here’s where the book could have turned into a court intrigue, which I can enjoy if it’s done right, but I’m really very glad it didn’t. Wouldn’t have been half so much fun. Because Yeine’s friends and allies are the confined gods who give the Arameri their power over the world, and they’re just full of conniving and secrets and violence.

Very alien, these gods. It’s hard to write a deity and many writers aren’t up to it, but these are creatures believably drawn, quite distinct from humans but real characters all the same. It’s always hard to write the nonhuman in a way that works, so well done here. Yeine and her god friends are really the best parts, but her mad and terrible relatives (on both sides of the family) are also wonderful in their awfulness. There’s even this one nice guy. No idea how he got into this story, but then, he’s got some sharp edges of his own. Even the walk on characters have life and brightness. The characters and the world are inseparable in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Partly because some of them are deified personifications of abstract concepts and therefore part of the world because they want to be, but partly because it’s such a deeply imagined, intricate universe that everyone belongs right where they’re put and has a history and a glory.

Most of the actual history of the world of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is spoilerific. Its current situation is fraught with difficulties of its own, but it’s all amazingly epic. Jemisin only describes out two cultures in detail, Yeine’s and the Arameri, but there are hints about their surroundings. I love me some fictional anthropology and everything from dining conventions to intricate genealogies are present. Not laid out; it’s more of a snapshot thing. There’s not a complete story of anything anywhere in the novel, which is more fun for purposes of a world like this. You know the details are there. In fact, given the rapidity with which the sequel came out, they’re probably all written down in detail somewhere.

The writing is stylistically interesting on several levels. It’s a first-person narrative that’s forever cutting in and out of the story as it happened and some unknowable present vantage point that’s only explained at the end. In addition to increasing the reread value (“Oh, that’s what she was talking about!”), it keeps things mysterious and frantic to have this strange foreknowledge that isn’t foreknowledge. The prose is laid on a little thick sometimes, but I didn’t mind. That was another nicely old-school aspect to a very modern book and just added to the fun. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is heavy on the gory and squishy details, whether physical or emotional, and reading it is a pretty weighty experience, but I rushed through anyway. Definite page turner.

I won’t call the book flawless because nothing really is. Mythology is squicky and Jemisin held to that aspect of the story. The gods of the book are weird on the scale of the Japanese origin myth. While not a problem for me, their interactions can be unsettling the wrong way. There’s a bit of frantic catch-up from time to time, perhaps unavoidable with such a heavily convoluted plot. Keeping up is troublesome to say the least. But all my troubles with the book are little ones. I love this book hard and it made a tidy meal of my brain on my first frantic readthrough.

And if you’ll excuse me, the Ginger Waif’s copy of The Broken Kingdoms is waiting at the library.

Review: Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes

When I reviewed the Riverside series, I came to the conclusion that the books were indefensibly, fundamentally… well, bad, but that I love them anyway. Now I am confronted with the opposite problem. Altogether, I would have to say that Zoo City is an interesting, well-written, unique book. And I don’t care for it.

Zoo City is a slice of life sort of book. Normally that wouldn’t be a good way to characterize a tale of murder and magic, but we’ll get to that.  Zinzi December is an ex-junkie who facilitates 419 scams and finds lost keys and, I dunno, tax returns using her fairly interesting magic abilities. She is accompanied everywhere by my favorite character in the book, Sloth. Sloth is a sloth, funnily enough, and he mostly hangs out and is grumpy. He and Zinzi are symbiotic familiar-and-witch, the life of one dependent on the other, and he’s pretty sweet all around. Zinzi is hired by some members of the Hello We Are Evil Club on behalf of an important music executive. One of his star teenyboppers has gone missing, and Zinzi reluctantly takes the job. Her power is finding lost things, though it apparently doesn’t apply to people. Which is why she doesn’t generally take missing persons cases, being no more qualified than I am to do so. So she embarks on a quest to find the starlet and then everything is gritty and conspiratorial.

What I find most interesting in this book is the writing. The bulk of the story is first-person and present tense, tossing you straight into Zinzi’s brain, and you never duck over to another character’s direct perspective. The flow is constantly built upon, though, by other bits of media. Beukes has a wonderful, versatile voice, and everything from trashy tabloid journalism to the blathering of internet commenters is wonderfully captured. The South African setting leads to a lot of linguistic jumps that were hard for a white-bread American-English reader to follow, but once I got into the swing of things, it was easy to get the gist. Hell, I read A Clockwork Orange. This was a piece of cake.

(Except I don’t like cake, and cake is actually kind of tricky. Brownies are easy. ‘Twas a brownie.)

Everyone has a voice and the imagery is always strong and sensual. I mean that in the purely nonsexual sense, I should note. I hope nothing in this book was supposed to be sexy, because it definitely wasn’t. But you could smell the smoke and feel the flesh tear and wade in sewage to your knees right along with Zinzi, and that’s some good storytelling.

The other solid element of Zoo City was its world. Urban South Africa of the magical near-future is a fascinating place. The main fantastic element are the animals themselves. People who have done significant wrong (and this is very vague; more on that later) suddenly develop a bad case of the animal companion edge. They also pick up a single psychic talent, as in Zinzi’s Saint Anthony routine. Zoos are hated and feared and so on and they have their own sort of sub-society. There’s also magic of a more shamanic sort that seems to be accessible to anyone who puts in the time and effort, though I got the idea that a lot of that was fraudulent or just wholly unreliable. That angle isn’t explored too much. Actually, a lot of things aren’t explored. In some places, as in world building elements, that’s alright. I don’t need the story interrupted for an in-depth and pedantic history of the practice of magic.

In other places, it thoroughly disrupts your enjoyment of and investment in the story. Take the animals. I have no idea what the actual criteria are for getting one. The implication is that murder is the big cause, but how direct it has to be escapes me. Zinzi herself is really unclear about what precisely went down to summon Sloth to her. One character seems to have picked his up in self-defense. Another seems awfully unlikely to have killed anyone. Most Zoos seem to be out on the streets, so either grimdark future South Africa has a really, really lenient court system when it comes to murder or you can also get one for petty crimes. But if you don’t have to do anything quite that bad, then why are so many gleefully evil people hanging out un-animaled? I have no idea. And, aside from distracting confusion, the whole situation leads to what I’m going to call the True Blood problem. We’re told that animaled folks deserve our understanding and are unfairly targeted. I’m okay with that. I’m a nerd, and as with most nerds I was picked on in school and am educated enough to be a bleeding-heart liberal. I side with the downtrodden. But since you apparently do have to be a fairly scary person to get an animal and whatever does the deciding is apparently infallible, I think it’s fair to be wary of people who are wearing their “accessory to murder at minimum” badges. I’m not for ostracizing and punishing those who commit criminal acts forever, but it’s a fair indication that you’re dealing with a person who ought to be treated with caution.

Anyway. That’s the trouble with the world. Then come the characters. Some of the side characters are pretty amusing, in a mild way. The bad guys are pretty good bad guys, even if most of them have inscrutable motives for everything they do, whether they’re the Club Evil mercenaries from hell or some guy who doesn’t like Zinzi for some reason and harasses her the whole book because he seems to feel like it. I have a theory that that guy has a thing for her boyfriend. Speaking of whom, Benoit really should be kinda interesting, but he isn’t. He has a colorful and tragic past and a strange present and seems to be one of the few people in the book who’s actually kind of nice or admirable, but he ends up just sort of occupying space.

And as for Zinzi herself… You spend the bulk of the book inside her head, and you clearly find that she’s quite convinced that she’s an unpleasant person who never does anything right. Usually, when a character harps on that point, it gets one of two reactions. If it’s done right, you say to yourself, “Oh, poor character, you just need to believe in yourself! You’re a good person!” If it’s done poorly, the reader is left thinking, “Oh, shut up, you Mary-Sue pain in the ass.” Neither of these things happened when I read about Zinzi’s self-esteem problem. All I could think was, “Yeah, you are a fundamentally unpleasant person who never seems to accomplish a damn thing.”

I don’t mind a villain protagonist. They’re great sometimes. Richard III, Severian, Artemis Fowl (early books); they’re all good. But that’s not what Zinzi is. I don’t mind antiheroes. They’re more fun, really. But Zinzi’s not really an antihero. Her great sin isn’t something she tries to redeem herself for. I have no idea what her great sin was. There’s never any hint at what really happened or why. There’s no suggestion that she didn’t just do something terrible because it was easiest. She’s ultimately not a hero. She doesn’t learn or grow. She doesn’t accomplish anything.

Which brings us to the slice of life plot. That’s all I can call it, because the story goes nowhere. It’s not what I’d call a tragedy in the traditional sense. There’s no fall. There’s no decline. It’s not even really a downer ending where they get a disease and lose the farm. It’s just fundamentally nothing. The world is the same place at the end of the story as in the beginning. A few people die or are terribly damaged. A few people don’t or aren’t. World keeps on spinning. This is not A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. This is just kind of a blank space.

It’s what I’m going to dub the China Meiville problem. There’s a wonderful world full of wonderful creatures and institutions and magic. The words are beautiful, even when what they bring to life is ugly. And yet there’s no substance. None of the characters resonate. None of the story holds up. Know the phrase “and nothing of value was lost?” In Zoo City, nothing of value is gained.

And yet I have to recommend it. It’s groundbreaking and well executed and interesting. And yet.